Simcha Fisher: Sublimate your anger, $5 at a time

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PHOTO: Jo Tyson/Unsplash

How’s this for an idea when you’re feeling  annoyed?

I won’t say who it is, because I don’t want to embarrass her, but someone recently told me about a new policy she developed for herself during the pandemic. Every time she started to get mad at someone for being selfish and irresponsible, and she wanted to righteously lash out and put them in their place , she would send a few dollars to the food pantry, instead.

At first I thought this was a sweet and good but somewhat random gesture: Instead of doing the bad thing (being mad), she was going to do the good thing (feeding the hungry). But I actually think there was actually something more interesting and meaningful going on: Something called sublimation.

Sublimation is when you take some undesirable urge and redirect the energy of it into something worthwhile and commendable. It is not repression, because you’re not denying that the urge is there, and you’re not pretending it doesn’t affect you. Instead, you’re acknowledging that the urge is powerful and forceful, and that you can’t make it just go away; so instead, you make it work for you.

The person in question felt an understandable rage and frustration when someone would rudely refuse to wear a mask, or would spread lies about vaccines, or would harass other people for complying with safety protocols. (Yes, these are all things that happen regularly.)

I think this anger qualifies as righteous anger, because these actions hurt vulnerable people the most. But she knew that following her heart by cussing them out or smacking them would just make things worse for everybody. So instead, she balled up her anger and used it to help vulnerable people. Thus the donation to the food pantry.

So it wasn’t just “do good instead of bad.” She took anger over someone hurting people, and used it to help people. The food pantry is great for this kind of thing, because there will always be poor people, and poor people will always need food (or even better, money so they can decide what kind of food to buy).

The thing about sublimation is not just that it makes good things come about, and it’s not just that it steers you away from crashing on the rocks of sin. It actually changes you. Here is where I recall one of the first really useful things I learned from my therapist years ago.

Kindness cupboard shows a lot of heart

He asked me to picture a child who, when her parents fight, always deals with her emotions by going out into the yard and pacing around and around the house. She does this so often that her feet actually wear a groove into the earth. Then what happens is that, every time there’s a storm, the rain tends to collect in that groove, because it’s now a low point.

The idea is that, when we form a habit of going to a certain mental place over and over again, then every emotional storm tends to bring you to that place again, whether it’s what you want or not. The adult who is no longer stuck in that angry house still gets stuck in the child’s way of dealing with strong emotions.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea: If you tread a certain path often enough, you’ll find it easier and easier to automatically tread that path, and harder and harder to tread any other path. Your automatically emotions collect in the low point like rain in a gutter.

But! There is something you can do about it. You can tread a new path. You can deliberately, intentionally decide that every time you feel like you want to do THIS, you will do THAT, instead. It will feel artificial at first, but eventually your brain may very well get the hang of it and will start to do some of the work for you. It will become part of you, part of the mental landscape of where you live.

Now, this is not instead of therapy. That little girl still who made those grooves still needs someone to listen to her, and help her understand what happened to her, how it affected her, and what it’s doing to her life today. But most of us have some mental habits we’d rather not have, but which we don’t know how to deal with. You could do worse than making a stab at sublimation. Take a hard look at what kind of thing your emotion is telling you, and look around for something you can do that’s that same kind of thing, but not harmful.

It could be something as simple as reminding yourself, every single time, that you are strong and capable and can make your own choices. One all-purpose, always appropriate “this instead of that” arrangement is to resolve that, every time you’re angry at someone, you say a quick prayer for them.

This is an open invitation for grace to come not only to them, but to you. And if you can’t come up with anything brilliant, you can always donate to the food pantry. I guarantee they’re just as glad to get angry donations as they are any other kind.